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Researchers Discover the True Smell of Ancient Rome

Researchers Discover the True Smell of Ancient Rome

We know now what ancient Rome smelled like, thanks to a 2,000-year-old perfume bottle.

Researchers working near Seville in Spain unearthed a mausoleum in 2019 that was home to a variety of well-preserved containers, including perfume bottles and ointments. The team recently opened a sealed vial of Roman perfume from around the time of Christ, a rock crystal ointment jar that had been sealed with a stopper to protect a solid substance within.

“To our knowledge,” wrote the authors of the paper, “this is possibly the first time a perfume from Roman times has been identified.”

Through careful analysis of the substance and techniques like X-ray diffraction, infrared spectroscopy, and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the researchers discovered the scent used inside is similar to patchouli oil.

Roman perfume vial
(a) Unguentarium found in the mausoleum; (b) Precise location of the unguentarium inside the urn. (Credit: Heritage)

Patchouli is widely used in modern perfumery, but its usage during Roman times was previously unknown.

Due to the preservation of both the tomb and the containers inside, researchers have begun to discover more and more about the daily life of ancient Romans. The perfectly sealed nature of the container and the preservation of the perfume residues inside allowed the team to conduct a detailed study of its composition 2,000 years after it was bottled.

The jar was preserved in an egg-shaped lead case stored in a niche in the wall, containing bones, amber beads, and the ointment jar.

Roman perfume canisters
A wall inside the unearthed mausoleum. (Credit: Heritage)

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